For most of my educational life, I didn’t give much thought to how my experience might differ from that of the males in my class. In high school, my honors and AP classes all had a lot of girls. Outside of that group, it sometimes felt like boys were intimidated by smart girls. That was their problem and not mine.
There are more women going to college and graduating from college every year at all levels from undergraduate to doctoral programs. Women are certainly taking every opportunity to become better educated and more successful. Yet, that was not my experience. I imagine that the world I face was more similar to the university life around 1900 than the typical female university experience in the year 2000. I was definitely in the minority, and everyone was not happy to have me in the classroom.
Physical science majors (physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy) are about 25% female. None of those women were in my physics classes. I literally never saw another girl in an upper-level physics class. In the year that I graduated, my class was three boys and me. I was the 25%. Yet, no other girls had graduated from the geophysics program before me, and none graduated after me. So, the 25% can be deceiving. In fact, I was alone. My experience was that scientists are pretty open-minded. Everyone thought it was cool that I liked what they liked, and nobody ever made it seem like I shouldn’t be there. Sure, it got a little weird when all the physics Ph.D. students thought I should be their girlfriend because I liked physics and was nice to them. Other than that, I never had a problem.
I didn’t run into many women in my classes or as my professors, but that didn’t bother me. I was friends with the guys in my major, and the lack of women never made me feel like I didn’t belong there. I had one female professor in my major classes. She didn’t champion me with a “girl power” talk or really encourage me in any way. She was just there doing her own thing, and I’m not even sure that she liked me all that much. So, there was no female mentoring. I came to depend on getting support and advice from men, including a great advisor.
In the end, I switched fields and switched careers in graduate school. It had to do with the career path I was on and my realization my senior year that I would not emotionally survive a doctoral program in geophysics. I ended up in a doctoral finance program. Women in 2014 made up 42.3% of business doctoral graduates. Those women, however, are mostly in fields such as management and marketing. They are not in finance. Women were 27.7% of the doctoral degrees awarded in finance in 2014. Once again, I find myself in the 25%. I was the only female admitted in the year I started, but since people hang around for several years, I did get to know other women getting doctoral finance degrees. The university usually graduated one woman per year with a finance Ph.D., which meant there were about 4 of us there at any point in time. Half of them were Chinese students. If you want to be a minority in your field, be a white woman in finance. Even worse? Be a black woman in finance. They are almost non-existent.
I didn’t have a single female professor in graduate school. Maybe that was part of the reason some of the male professors were less than welcoming of women in their classes. This was the first time in my life when I ever experienced harassment and a clear message that the male professors didn’t want me there. There were two in particular who targeted me for their attacks. Luckily, I had a great advisor and enough of an attitude to be unbothered even then. I survived and thrived, which I am sure bothers them to this day. I didn’t have a female role model or mentor in my career because they just didn’t exist. Instead, my mentors and colleagues have been men who respect me and look out for me. Sure, there are times when it would have been helpful to have another woman in my corner. Finding people who you trust, however, should always come before anything else.